The Argument for Clayton Kershaw Over Mike Trout in Fantasy Baseball
Mike Trout is entering the 2015 season as the universally accepted number-one overall pick in fantasy baseball. Apart from being one of the most exciting players in baseball, Trout has now excelled in both real and fantasy baseball for three seasons now.
Trout seems like a no-brainer at the top spot. But should he be? Some alarming trends and the continuing dominance of Clayton Kershaw suggest otherwise.
The Evolution of the Trout
In 2012, Trout hit .326/.399/.564 in 639 plate appearances (139 games) with 30 homers, 129 runs, 83 runs batted in, and 49 steals. That’s borderline insane. Fast forward to 2014, and Trout hit .287/.377/.561 with 36 homers, 115 runs, 111 runs batted in, and 16 steals.
The traditional 5X5 fantasy stats aren’t the most advanced of baseball statistics, but there are a few differences between Trout’s 2012 and 2014 seasons, notably the drop in batting average and stolen bases. You could also note that Trout had many more RBI, but it seems to be a simple consequence of batting second in the Angels’ lineup instead of first.
Anyway, Trout hit .326 in 2012, .323 in 2013, and .287 in 2014. One could point to a drop in batting average on balls in play (BABIP), as it has dropped from .383 in 2012, to .376 in 2013, to .349 in 2014. If we are sure Trout was the same hitter in 2014 as he was in 2012 and 2013, there is no issue, as we could reasonably expect batting average to regress upwards.
But Trout isn’t the same hitter anymore. While his plate discipline numbers remain eerily constant, it appears Trout was sacrificing contact for power in 2014. His strikeout rate jumped from 19.0% in 2013 to 26.1% in 2014, and Trout managed 9 more homers in 2014 than in 2013 as well as a 40-point increase in isolated power.
In addition, Trout saw career-low line drive and groundball rates in 2014, but his flyball rate soared from 35.6% in 2013 to 47.2% in 2014. This is likely the cause of the decrease in BABIP, as most batters typically see better batting averages on groundballs than fly balls. Despite the change, Trout’s home run to fly ball rate remained approximately constant, so the increase in home runs looks legitimate.
After stealing 49 bags in 2012, Trout has stolen only 49 more in his next two seasons. We call Trout both a power and speed threat, and he still is in real baseball, but 16 steals doesn’t cut it in fantasy baseball. He was injured for parts of last season, so perhaps that is the cause, but the Angels might just be trying to keep Trout on the field by giving him the red light on the basepaths.
Either way, you’re likely to be upset if you expect Trout to sniff 40 or 50 steals. Realistically, 15 to 20 is still a solid number, but that makes him a lot more like Andrew McCutchen than Billy Hamilton.
Anyway, we are still treating Trout in fantasy like we are getting 30 homers and 49 steals from him. Based on the numbers, it’s probably better to adjust expectations closer to the 36 and 16 he posted last year.
Clayton Kershaw Keeps Getting Better
After missing the first month of the season, Kershaw started 27 games for the Dodgers and went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts. The dude will turn 27 in March, and he just posted his sixth consecutive season of at least 27 starts and an ERA of 2.91 or below.
In 2011, Kershaw achieved the pitching Triple Crown and won the Cy Young award at age 23. Here are what some of his stats look like from 2011 to the present.
Essentially, we’ve reached video game stats with Kershaw. Now, it is important to note the general trend in MLB where runs are down and strikeouts are up. It's crazy that 22 qualified starters managed ERA's below 3.00 last year. 13 starters struck out at least 200 batters. However, Kershaw still blows away the upper echelon of pitchers.
In 2014, Kershaw posted a strikeout to walk ratio of 7.71, second-best only to Phil Hughes. He struck out 31.9% of batters faced, tops in the league, and his K-BB% (walks minus strikeouts) of 27.8% paced second-place Chris Sale by more than three points. His 1.81 FIP was more than a half-run better than second-place Corey Kluber's.
And apart from one rough outing in May, Kershaw struck out at least six batters and allowed no more than three runs in a start. That includes a streak of 17 consecutive outings in which the Dodgers ace went for at least seven innings. And to summarize that season, outside of the aforementioned May blowup (seven runs), Kershaw allowed 35 runs in 26 starts.
He is pitching in the National League during a weak offensive period, all during his prime. The Dodgers are likely to have an elite offense, meaning lots of run support for Kershaw. For fantasy, it’s about as ideal as it can get.
You're on the Clock
We have established that, entering 2015, Mike Trout is the top batter, amid some concerns, while Clayton Kershaw is the top pitcher. It's really a strategy call, but Kershaw deserves to be the number-one pick in fantasy drafts due to positional scarcity and reliability.
Trout figures to be a positive contributor in batting average and steals while ranking among the leaders in home runs, runs scored, and RBI. Kershaw consistently places near the top of the league in wins and strikeouts and will likely dominate ERA and WHIP. If we're talking abut value over replacement, Kershaw gets the nod because of the degree which he can supply an advantage in ERA and WHIP.
You can't replicate Kershaw's ratio stats with other pitchers. With Trout, a power hitter and a speedster could easily make up for the lost counting stats, and above-average performers with regard to batting average are easy to find outside the first round.
Pitchers inherently carry more risk than batters, but Kershaw has demonstrated he is a model of durability. As the saying goes, leagues cannot be won, only lost, in the first round. Kershaw has returned first round value in the past four years, according to Baseball HQ, and Miguel Cabrera is the only other player in baseball to join him. Given all the commotion last year about Tommy John surgery and pitcher injuries, a full season from a starting pitcher is worth even more, especially one as consistent day-in-and-day-out as Kershaw.
Mike Trout is the obvious pick at the top spot. But Clayton Kershaw might be the right pick.